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Joy unbound in Titletown for NFC champion Green Bay Packers

CHICAGO

They danced. They embraced. They shot their fists into the air.

It was over now, and the Packers were dancing that winner's boogaloo across Soldier Field, and it seemed that everyone knew the steps. They whooped when they were supposed to whoop, and they wept when they were supposed to weep, and they grinned for the cameras whenever the lights came on.

So, yes, you have probably seen a locker room that looked like the Packers', and you have probably heard similar celebrations, and you have probably seen other teams try to describe the sweetness of a big victory. Give the Packers credit for their accomplishment, but when a team is the 89th ever to qualify for a Super Bowl, there isn't much demand for originality.

This time, however, there seemed to be a little something different, a little something deeper. On an evening such as this one, when the Packers had just punched their latest ticket to the Super Bowl, it struck you that this might be the happiest conference champion ever.

After all, they had just won a rivalry. Playing in the backyard of their fiercest rival, the Packers had made the Bears purr. They made the Bears look soft, and they made outsiders wonder if quarterback Jay Cutler surrendered.

After all, they had just won for the legends. Playing in Green Bay is different that playing in, say, Cincinnati. Win a big game here, and a player gets the feeling he is winning for Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr and Ray Nitschke and Willie Davis and Don Hutson and the rest.

After all, they had just won for the right to go the Super Bowl. You know, the game the Packers founded.

All things considered, has a team ever collected so many pelts on its way to the Super Bowl? The Packers won their third straight road game, and they ruined the afternoon of a lot of Bear fans, and they earned their fifth shot at a Super Bowl championship. Their offense looked potent, and their defense looked stubborn, and their roster looked resilient.

Also, they won the Halas Trophy.

Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, huh?

This is who the Packers are, and yes, Lombardi would approve. They are the best the NFC has to offer, and most of the reason is they wouldn't have it any other way. It didn't matter they had 14 players on injured reserve. It didn't matter that they were the sixth seed in the NFC. It didn't matter that they had to beat the top three seeds.

All that mattered was the next play, and the next game, and the next victim.

"We've always thought we were a very good football team," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Now we have the opportunity to achieve greatness. Bring the Lombardi Trophy back home. We never doubted that throughout the season. Our players truly believe that we will be successful in Dallas, just like they truly believed we were going to be successful here today. This was the path that was chosen for us, and I think it's really shaped a hell of a football team."

So who are these Packers? And should the Steelers be at all concerned?

There are stars here. Established stars, such as Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews. Budding stars, such as B.J. Raji and Greg Jennings. And undiscovered stars, such as James Starks and Sam Shields. It's a talented, stubborn bunch. Should it be an underdog to the Steelers? Yeah, probably. Does it have a shot to win? Yes, definitely.

Ask the Bears, who lost their second game in three weeks to the Packers. Green Bay's defense was better. Green Bay's offense was better. And even with Rodgers' worst day of the playoffs, Green Bay's quarterbacking was better.

Around Chicago, this loss is going to boil down to conversations about Cutler's knee and Cutler's courage. He left the game early in the third quarter, supposedly with a sore knee, and the outcry was almost immediate from those who questioned his toughness. Players across the league hit their Twitter accounts to suggest that Cutler should have continued.

Frankly, the Bears should have been happy to try without him. Before Cutler left, his completion percentage was 42.8 and his quarterback rating was 31.8. By then, Lovie Smith might have suggested to Cutler that his knee looked swollen. Alas, backup Todd Collins wasn't any better. It was only when third-teamer Caleb Hanie came into the game that the Bears showed any life at all on their offense. By then, Cutler jerseys were aflame in the parking lot outside.

Still, there is only so far a player such as Hanie can take a team. He threw one interception to Raji, who returned it 18 yards for a touchdown. With the Bears within seven, he threw another to Shields, who intercepted on the Green Bay 12 with 47 seconds to play.

Who are the Packers? They are Rodgers' arm and Jennings' hands and Starks' legs and that wild fluff of hair that belongs to Matthews. And, they are the pluck of a player such as Shields, the former University of Miami receiver (from Sarasota), who had two interceptions. After being converted from receiver to corner — where he had never played — no one knew much about him. And for a guy with a "Sunshine State" tattoo of Florida on his arm, who would have thought Green Bay would be where he would find success?

In some ways, Starks is the image of the Packers' defense. Overlooked, underappreciated, but peaking at the right time.

"I think we can play match up against the AFC," Matthews said. "We've been a good defense all along. We're doing all right. If we can do it one more time, we can etch ourselves in history as a special defense."

In Green Bay, they know a thing or two about football. And about history.

Two Sundays from now, we'll see how this team is remembered.

Joy unbound in Titletown for NFC champion Green Bay Packers 01/23/11 [Last modified: Sunday, January 23, 2011 10:53pm]
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